We Are Not Ourselves

We Are Not Ourselves
Matthew Thomas

Eileen Tumulty is the only child of alcoholic Irish parents, growing up in New York in the 50s and 60s. She dreams of reaching an upper-middle class respectability, having a comfortable suburban life.
Eileen feels that her key to that life is to marry the right man.  But she falls in love with Ed Leary. It doesn’t take too many years before she realizes his dream for the future is different than hers.  In time, Eileen and Ed manage to have a son, Connell. Eileen transfers many of her hopes for the future onto her son. But while she hunts for houses in respectable suburbs, her huband grows more and more resistant and withdrawn.
Eileen has to face the fact that life- and her choices- have led her to a very different place than the future she dreamed of as a young girl.

The story of We Are Not Ourselves is nothing new, but the characters are drawn with an incredible insight thst makes the book irresistible. This is a book that you stay up late to read, and wake up early to read- but every so often, you have to pause, and just let the words sink in. This is a book that spans generations and lifetimes, but no words are wasted. Every song, every literary reference, every house has been crafted by the author as part of the story.

We Are Not Ourselves is a story of family, of dreams, and of love- in all its many forms. It easily leapt onto my Top 10 list for this year. I believe we will be talking about Matthew  Thomas and his brilliant writing for years to come.


I don’t usually do much of a personal reflection but this excellent novel has given me a surplus of thoughts. I’m talking about some later plot points tho so spoiler warning.
Eileen fixates on owning a house as a symbol of success for her family. First she buys the multi-family house where they live, and moves into the best apartment. Not content with that, she starts touring homes in upscale neighborhoods, but she has delusions of grandeur. When she is finally honesy about what she can afford, the perfectly respectable houses seem shabby by comparison. Eventually she buys a house at the very top of her price range that she can only afford because of extensive water damage. When she moves in, tho, she doesn’t start to repair the roof or the foundation- she focuses on the dining room and kitchen so she can throw dinner parties. Thomas sums it up: “The base of the house might be rotting, but the visible portion was commanding enough…” He writes about a house, but he’s also giving insight into Eileen. It’s very well done.
Also. After several years of erratic behaviour, Eileen’s husband Ed is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. It made me think of my grandfather, who also has Alzheimer’s (although he is 90.) Some of Ed’s behaviors seem familiar. I’m starting to consider that maybe some of the things we kids thought were just Grandpop being Grandpop were, in fact, the coping mechanisms of a smart man realizing that things in his brain weren’t quite as fixed as they used to be. For example, writing in block letters instead of cursive, or making obsessive lists. But the line that hit home, written from Connell’s perspective, was: “…during the period when he’d gone around labeling everything.” I’m pretty sure every one in my extended family has inherited something labeled in my Grandpop’s big block letters.


Belle Cora

Belle Cora
Phillip Margulies

Arabella Godwin is an old lady when her life is shaken, quite literally, by one of San Francisco’s famous earthquakes. The disaster throws her together with a woman who remembers her, not as a rich society widow, but as the most infamous madam on the west coast.
Realizing that she has nothing to lose, Arabella finally sits down to write her own account of her early years. It is this memoir that makes up the bulk of Belle Cora.

Arabella was born into a comfortable merchant family, but the untimely death of her parents scattered the siblings, sending Arabella and her younger brother Lewis to live with relatives in the country. Farm life did not suit Arabella; but it was there she met Jeptha, who may just have been the love of her life.
Circumstances developed (I don’t want to give away the whole plot) that led Arabella to the gold rush town of San Francisco. She quickly worked her way up from being a prostitute to running one of the best brothels in the city. She also became known as the wife of the notorious gambler Charles Cora.
Of course a fast lifestyle came at a cost, and Belle paid that cost. She was still very young when she retired and started another life with a respectable man.

The narrative of Belle Cora– the story development and historical details-  is good enough. It is populated with a supporting cast of interesting characters. But what makes it exceptional, in my mind, is the voice of Belle as an old woman looking back over her life. Her perspective, at once unashamed and defensive, really elevates the story.

I had not even finished Belle Cora before I started recommending it to people. I’m recommending it even more now.


The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd

During the Civil War era, sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimpke were widely known not only as abolitionists but also as feminists. When she was a young girl, Sarah had been gifted a young slave named Hetty for her birthday, and Sarah taught her to read.
From the bare bones of these historical facts, Kidd has brought to life an outstanding novel, remarkable for its human characterization and insight.

In Kidd’s novel, Sarah is a restless girl with big dreams of becoming a lawyer and freeing her slave, Hetty. Her teen years sharpen her awareness of the inequalities faced by women and people of color (both slave and free.)
Hetty’s alternate chapters provide an unflinching look at the harsh realities of life for a female slave. Her mother, Charlotte, is a gifted seamstress who passes on her family’s African oral traditions through the art of her quilts.
Although it is illegal, Sarah is determined to give Hetty a tiny freedom in being literate. Neither of them can forsee the long-ranging consequences of this descision.

As an adult, Sarah is free to travel, and encounters the Quakers, who have radical ideas about freedom for slaves and women. She soon discovers that some of these ideas are more theory than practice.
Hetty, meanwhile, gets drawn into plans for a slave revolt. These plans, too, might never become a reality.

When she was only 12, Sarah was made the godmother to her sister Angelina. Their relationship is at once close and volatile. As a young woman trying to find her own way, Sarah is ill-equipped to help her sister in her own rebellion against societal expectations. But when both sisters are adults, they grow into an unexpected partnership. The differences that drove them apart as girls make them an effective pair in the fight for equal rights for all people.

Hetty’s mother taught her to always make quilts with black triangles,  representing blackbird wings. Like Sarah and Angelina, Hetty never gives up hope that someday she, too, can fly free.

The Invention of Wings is an outatanding book. Kidd has done an excellent job with both historic detail and character development that make the story come alive.
Having already read most of Kidd’s previous works, I recognize many common themes from her: anti-slavery and racial equality, as well as equal rights for women- especially in the church- being the most obvious. The importance of contemplative prayer, art, and symbolism of nature are others.
In the context of Sue Monk Kidd’s other books, The Invention of Wings is clearly a natural progression as well as a pinnacle of her writing


You might like: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter Franklin.


Best Fiction 2013


Here’s my Top 10 novels for 2013, plus 3 honorable mentions. I’ve tried to stick to things that were published in 2013. They are listed more or less in the order I read them- I couldnt possibly rank them!

Top 10 Novels of 2013
Me Before You
Calling Me Home
Life After Life
And The Mountains Echoed (no review)
The Storyteller
The Impossible Life of Greta Wells
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
The Last First Day
Bellman and Black

Honorable Mentions
These are some of the books I anticipated and enjoyed the most this yeat. They might not quite rank as the best literature but they are outstanding in their genres.
Emperor of Thorns
White Fire



Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint
Nadia Bolz-Weber

The first word in Pastrix is a four-letter one. If you find that offensive, go ahead and put the book down now. If, however, you find it challenging or intriguing, keep reading.
In Pastrix, Nadia tells the story of how she found her way from a very conservative Christian background (where women were not even allowed to teach Sunday school to teen boys) to being the pastor of a church (with many gay, homeless and otherwise non-traditional congregants.) She spent years as an alcoholic and, after sobering up, felt most at home as a Wiccan. But her husband (then a seminary student) introduced her to the Lutheran liturgy and she began to understand God- and grace- like she never had before. Eventually she felt the call to ministry and attended seminary- with her parents blessing.
I also grew up in churches even more conservative than the ones of Nadia’s childhood. I still haven’t sorted out everything I believe about women in the pulpit, or gays in the church, or lots of other things. But I loved this book!
In Pastrix, Nadia explains grace better than almost anyone I’ve ever heard. Its easy to look at others and judge them;  its a lot more challenging when the Holy  Spirit convicts you of being proud, judgemental and not loving your neighbor.
Nadia and I probably disagree on a lot of theology, but we agree on the big points. Being a Christian- or pastor- isnt about having all the right theology. Its about saying with the blind man healed by Jesus, “I do not know; but one thing I do know: that I was blind and now I see.” (John 9) Being a Christian- or pastor- isn’t about being better (or swearing less) than someone else. Its about saying, “I found water in the desert; here it is.”
Pastrix, in the end, isn’t really about Nadia, or how she looks, or the language she uses. Its about Jesus. And it was like a cool drink of water in a hot, dry place.


White Fire

White Fire
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Can I just say, this book caused a lot of happy squealing on my end? First when Preston personally (!) sent me an Advanced Reader Copy (!!) Then when I saw the first page of the book, and again when I finished it. I have been a huge fan of Preston and Child’s Special Agent Pendergast for about 10 years now. Having finished their latest sub-trilogy in the series, they decided to explore new ground with Pendergast. And by new ground, I mean going way back in the past to the ground at the root of all detective stories: Sherlock Holmes.
I have long held that Pendegast is the most Sherlockian of detectives currently being written. So one of my squeals came when I opened White Fire to see a note that the character of Sherlock Holmes was used in this novel by permission of the Conan Doyle estate! Of course, how one of the greatest detectives in fiction got mixed up with Sherlock Holmes is a (typically, delightfully) twisted story.

Special Agent Pendergast’s protege, Corrie Swanson, is looking for the perfect research project to advance her studies at the College of Criminal Justice. She stumbles upon accounts of a man-eating bear in a Colorado mining town in the 1870s. Corri pours all of her resources into research, but powerful families in the town (now a high-class ski resort) are uncomfortable with what she unearths. While she digs around in the past, houses in the town are being burned to the ground. Corri makes some impetuous descisions, and this is where Pendergast has to come riding in to bail her out.
Pendergast’s take on the man- eating bear is wildly different, colored by an old Sherlock Holmes tale (invented in this book by Preston and Child. They do a remarkable job of alluding to Conan Doyle’s style but still writing in a manner recognizably their own.) Pendegast must call on all of his resources to not only solve the case but keep Corrie alive (and out of jail.) He leverages all of his connections and explores all his fields of obscure knowledge before bringing all his impressive powers of thought and deduction to bear and, of course, solving the case! All this while attired in only the finest of bespoke black menswear (the detailed descriptions of his Colorado snow gear were pretty funny.)

If you had merely said to me the words “Pendergast and Holmes” I would’ve been excited. Happily, this book was everything I hoped it would be- and more. Lincoln and Child do not disappoint. Fans of Pendergast will be happy to encounter him in this unique adventure. Readers new to the series will find this book an excellent place to start.


The other top (altho not quite as good) Sherlockian detectives currently being written are J. Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme and J. Nesbo’s Harry Hole.


Bellman and Black

Bellman and Black
Diane Setterfield

Setterfield’s first book, Thirteenth Tale, was a wonderful story that I love and recommend but find hard to explain. With Bellman and Black,  she’s done it again. The cover describes it as “a ghost story”, but I’d have a hard time explaining exactly who is haunting whom.

William Bellman is a young man when his uncle takes him under his wing and begins grooming him to take over the family cloth mill. Thanks to skill, a little luck, and incredibly hard work, Bellman expands and eventually inherits the business. His personal life is likewise sucessful, until one day tragedy strikes.
Mourning at the grave of his dearest loved one, Bellman meets a mysterious man named Black, who offers him an opportunity. Inspired, Bellman envisions a new business, which he names Bellman and Black. His business is successful beyond his wildest dreams- until one day, after years it suddenly isn’t. On the downward slope from a peak of success, Bellman begins to wonder who exactly his invisible business partner is, and what kind of deal he has made.

Rooks figure largely in this story (if there is any specific ghost, it is a rook.) Death is part of life in this story. Color and the many shades of black are also a focal point.

Summed up, it Bellman and Black doesn’t sound wildly compelling. Oh but it is! This is one of those books where the power of the story (and the beauty of the writing) is greater than the basic plot. Its true gothic Victorian-style horror- chilling exactly because so much is left implied.
The descriptions of color, cloth and materials are especially lush. I lost myself thoroughly in the pages of description for Bellman’s business.

If you want a story that is compelling, frightening, and gorgeous all at once, pick up Bellman and Black when it goes on sale this week. Maybe, in the end, its the story that haunts you….


You might like: Tiger’s Wife, Obrect. Bookman’s Tale, Lovett. Thirteenth Tale, Setterfield.